That’s not quite it An experimental investigation of (non‑)exhaustivity in clefts

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Joseph P. De Veaugh-Geiss
Swantje Tönnis
Edgar Onea
Malte Zimmermann


We present a novel empirical study on German directly comparing the exhaustivity inference in es-clefts to exhaustivity inferences in definite pseudoclefts, exclusives, and plain intonational focus constructions. We employ mouse-driven verification/falsification tasks in an incremental information-retrieval paradigm across two experiments in order to assess the strength of exhaustivity in the four sentence types. The results are compatible with a parallel analysis of clefts and definite pseudoclefts, in line with previous claims in the literature (Percus 1997, Büring & Križ 2013). In striking contrast with such proposals, in which the exhaustivity inference is conventionally coded in the cleft-structure in terms of maximality/homogeneity, our study found that the exhaustivity inference is not systematic or robust in es-clefts nor in definite pseudoclefts: Whereas some speakers treat both constructions as exhaustive, others treat both constructions as non-exhaustive. In order to account for this unexpected finding, we argue that the exhaustivity inference in both clefts and definite pseudoclefts — specifically those with the compound definite derjenige — is pragmatically derived from the anaphoric existence presupposition that is common to both constructions.


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